Say It Isn't So, Maria Sharapova

I’m not a big tennis fan but I do pay attention whenever there is a story about the Williams sibling rivalry.  The only other tennis star I’ve really heard of is Maria Sharapova.  She is after all a five-times Grand Slam champion and the highest earning athlete in any female sport.

UPDATEMaria Sharapova appealed her two year suspension.

When my friend posted on Facebook about Sharapova failing a drug test, I did my google-fu to see what I could dig up get the full story.  Initially I learned that she was suspended by the International Tennis Federation and sponsors like Nike, Porsche and Tag Heuer were wasting no time parting ways with her because she tested positive for the drug meldonium.

Apparently she has been using this drug for 10 years but it was recently added by World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) to the list of banned substances effective January 1st of this year.  My first thought was this sounds like Bears Quarterback Jim Miller’s suspension in 1999.  Miller said he “had unknowingly taken the banned substance nandrolone for four days as a substitute for his regular dietary supplement.”

I looked on Sharapova’s Facebook page and there  was a link to her website with a press release video.  I thought it odd not to simple post a link to the video and this was probably a calculated move.  The entire 7+ minute press conference is linked above.  I give her props for taking ownership of her actions and not trying to deny the test results or blame her doctor.  I also gotta say even though I understand the attempt at humor, the comment about the ugly hotel carpeting (2:55) didn’t win her any friends.

Fans and proponents are calling for the ITF to be lenient with her punishment.  Anti-doping advocates want to make an example out of Sharpova.  The Court of Public Opinion will hash out whether this was a deliberate attempt at gaining a competitive edge or an honest mistake.

We have drug testing of athletes for a reason.  It’s not precautionary like a smoke detector or seat belts.  It’s because athletes are under such pressure to perform at a high level and the demands led to the temptation to gain any edge possible.

However the ITF decides to handle this, they must be consistent and judicious.  Whatever punishment they doll out for this, it has to be the same punishment they would give Venus Williams, Roger Federer or some unknown last place professional tennis player if they had failed the same test.

You can be Pollyanna and believe that it was an honest mistake.  That she didn’t read the notice the ITF sent in September and didn’t realize the drug she was taking — that she knew by the name mildronate — was also meldonium.

You can be cynical and think that it was a calculated risk that has now blown up in Sharapova’s pretty and very marketable face.  Meldonium isn’t known for its magnesium supplements or diabetes fighting ability.

Or you can even be both.  I kinda think that she was taking the drug for legitimate health reasons and learned that it had some performance enhancing usefulness.

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